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November 10, 1861: The Geysers

November 10, 2011
The Geysers steam field

The Geysers steam field, from Pine Flat Road; by davidhofmann08, on Flickr

We commenced the season’s work a year ago, intending to work up the Coast Range to the Geysers, then to go into winter quarters. Here we were, within less than four miles (six or seven by the trail) of the spot, late in the season. Although it was Sunday and looked like rain, this four miles must be made and the season’s work finished. The next day we might not do it, if the rains set in, as they bid fair to; so, [today], we started on our way. Mr. Wattles and another man from the mines accompanied us.

First we went up a very steep slope through a forest, then through chaparral to the summit of the ridge. We rode along the crest several miles, commanding one of the most sublime views for wild scenery since leaving the southern country. We rose to the altitude of about 3,500 feet. Around on all sides was a wild and rough country. We were higher than the country south, but on the north mountains rose higher than we were. The air was very clear, although the day was cloudy, the sun appearing only at times.

To the west of us rose Sulphur Mountain1, a sharp conical peak 3,500 to 3,700 feet high, sharp, regular, and covered with dark green chaparral, like a great green mat. At times clouds curled over its summit, at others they rolled away and the sharp cone stood out against the cloudy sky. To the southwest lay the beautiful valley of the Russian River, some villages scattered in it, mere specks in the distance; beyond it were the rough ridges between it and the sea, against which heavy masses of cold fog rolled in from the Pacific.

To the south we could see the broken country lying between the Napa and the Russian River valleys, the Santa Rosa Valley, the black peak of Tamalpais by Tomales Bay, and the Bay of San Francisco. To the southeast was Napa Valley with rugged ridges east of it; and at the head of the valley stood the grand St. Helena, towering over a thousand feet above us, its rugged sides scarred by the elements, sometimes clear and distinct, at others with heavy manes of clouds drifting across its rocky brow for two thousand feet down its sides.

To the north was the deep, almost inaccessible canyon of Pluton (Pluto’s) River, more than a thousand feet beneath us, and towering beyond it stood Mount Cobb, which, though not a thousand feet higher than our position, was enveloped in masses of cloud at times, although occasionally its tall pines stood out marvelously clear. Then we could see the valley of Clear Lake and the rugged mountains around it.

The scene was not merely beautiful, it was truly sublime. But we returned from the ridge, down the steep sides of Pluto’s Canyon, and soon lost all this extensive view. The hill was so steep that we walked, leading our mules. On descending the slope, we saw the pillar of steam rising, several miles distant, and when more than a mile, we could see the Geyser Canyon very distinctly and hear the roaring, rushing, hissing steam. We were soon on the spot. The principal springs or geysers are in a little side canyon that opens into Pluton Canyon.

Inside one of the Calpine power plants

Inside a Calpine power plant at The Geysers; Image Source: KQED QUEST - Some rights reserved.

Here let me say, by way of introduction, that the geysers are not geysers at all, in the sense in which that word is used in Iceland—they are merely hot springs. Their appearance has been greatly exaggerated, hence many visitors come away disappointed. They were first seen by white men some nine or ten years ago, and such very extraordinary descriptions were given, that it was supposed that the whole world would flock to see the curiosity. All the facts were magnified, and fancy supplied the entire features of some of their wonders. But a company preëmpted a claim of 160 acres, embracing the principal springs and the surrounding grounds, built quite a fine hotel on a most picturesque spot, and at an enormous expense made a wagon road to them, leading over mountains over three thousand feet high. But the road was such a hard one, the charges at the hotel so extortionate, and the stories of the wonderful geysers so much magnified, that in this land of “sights” they fell into bad repute and the whole affair proved a great pecuniary loss. The hotel is kept up during the summer, but the wagon road is no longer practicable for wagons and is merely used as a trail for riding on horseback or on mules.

The springs cover an extent of a number of acres, but the principal ones are in a very narrow canyon with very steep sides. They break out on the bottom and along the sides up to the height of 150 or 200 feet, and on a little flat nearby. There are hundreds of springs—of boiling water—boiling, hissing, roaring. The whole ground is scorched and seared, strewn with slag and cinders, or with sulphur and various salts that have either come up in the steam or have been crystallized from the waters.

Passing over the flat we saw several of these—many in fact—here a boiling spring, there a hole in the ground from which steam issues, sometimes as quietly as from the spout of a teakettle simmering over the fire, but at others rushing out as if it came from the escape pipe of some huge engine. The ground is so hot as to be painful to the feet through thick boots, and so abounds in sulphuric acid and acid salts as to quickly destroy thin leather—it even chars and blackens the fragments of wood that get into it.

Near some of the springs a treacherous crust covers a soft, sticky, viscous, scalding mud; one may easily break in, and several accidents more or less serious have thus occurred. Quite recently a miner was so badly scalded as to be crippled, probably for life. Sulphur often issues with the steam and condenses in the most beautiful crystallizations on the cooler surface. Specimens of sulphur frostwork are of the most exquisite beauty, but too frail to be removed. We crossed this table and descended into the canyon above the geysers and followed it down. I found some flowers out in the canyon above, in the warm steamy air, of a species that elsewhere is entirely out of flower.

One can descend into the canyon and follow it down with safety, a feat that seems utterly impossible before the trial. Here is the grand part of the spectacle. Here are the most copious streams, the largest and loudest steam-jets, the most energetic forces, and the most terrific looking places. Standing part way down the bank at the upper end of the active part, where the canyon curves so that all its most active parts are seen at a glance, the scene is truly impressive. It seems an enormous, seething, steaming cauldron. Steam or hot water issuing from hundreds of vents, the white and ashy appearance of the banks, the smell of sulphur and hot steam in our faces, combined to produce an entirely novel effect.

We descended and followed down the canyon, threading our way on the secure spots. Hot water or steam issued on all sides—under us, by our side, over us, around us. Sometimes the whole party was enveloped in a cloud of vapor so that we could not see each other, at other times this was blown away by the winds. Once the sun came out from between the clouds and shone through this steamy air down on us, lurid, yet indistinct. In one place a rocky pool of black rock several feet in diameter, filled with thick, black water—black from sulphuret of iron, black as ink—was in the most violent agitation. It is the most peculiar feature of all the geysers and is well called the Witches’ Cauldron. The water, black and mysterious, boils so violently that it spouts up two or three feet from the surface, inclosed in this rocky wall.

A considerable stream of hot water issues from this canyon, and a short distance below are sulphur banks where hundreds, or even thousands, of tons of sulphur could be cheaply obtained. A curious fact is that a low order of plant, like confervae or “frog spawn” grows in this hot water, most copiously in water of 150° F., and even on the margins of springs of a temperature of 200° F., and over surfaces exposed to the hot steam. As the springs are at an altitude of 1,600 or 1,700 feet, the water boils at a temperature of about 200° F., so these plants literally grow in boiling water! I have obtained specimens, but owing to their character, they were very unsatisfactorily preserved.

We returned to the house, where our friends had ordered dinner, but they were very tardy in getting it. We had been a long time without news, and a man brought a recent slip, an “extra” of telegraphic news, from Petaluma, telling of the bombardment and taking of Charleston (which has since proved untrue), which called forth three hearty cheers. After a tedious wait dinner was announced, and after we had eaten we went out to saddle our mules.

Suddenly the sky had become darker and more threatening. We were soon off, but on reaching the ridge summit we were enveloped in a thick, driving, drizzly fog that rolled in from the sea, soon wetting us to the skin, and making our teeth chatter. The wind, cold and raw, swept over the ridge with terrific violence—in places it almost stopped our mules—there was no rain, but much wet. Yet we rode along light-hearted, for we had reached the goal of our summer’s hope, we were on the back trail, the rain had deferred its coming a month later than usual—for us.

Dripping with wet we plodded our way through the thick clouds and fog. Luckily our guides were well acquainted with the trail, for in a fog one is easily lost in these wilds and it would be terrible to be caught out on such a night. But we got back safely, and had scarcely got secure in the cabin when the rain fell in torrents. We got supper, then built a big fire and dried as well as we could before it. But how it rained! It came through the roof in many places, but we were tolerably secure. We listened to stories of the mountains, got partly dry, picked out the driest places to spread our blankets, and were soon asleep.

1Geyser Peak, 3458′.

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